Sunday, August 14, 2022

Death, with an "I"

 During the last few weeks those of us of a certain age have lost some childhood, teenage, or young adulthood heroes. A friend of mine – a fabulous singer – has taken the death of Olivia Newton John very hard, partly because she was coming into her musical identity as he was developing his own love of music. Another friend was particularly touched by the death of her role model Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the Star Trek television show at a time when few African American women were cast in leadership roles. And many southern Californians heard the news of Vin Scully’s death with fond memories of his comforting voice wishing us “a very pleasant good evening” and informing us that “It’s time for Dodger baseball.” Finally, I had a basketball jersey when I was in elementary school, with the number 9. After the season I got to keep the Jersey and I removed the number so I could flip it and hang Bill Russell’s number 6 on the wall above my bed – my earliest childhood sports hero. It is sobering to see those whose lives are inspirational to use age or die. We know that one or the other is inevitable, but part of admiring folks is holding in our memory a snapshot of their lives as we appreciated it, instead of allowing them to move on. Likewise, it is a curious thing about death – we know it is inevitable, yet it saddens and surprises us all the same. 


I recently read a story about a dad telling his son about the chance meeting that brought him and the boy’s mother together. It was a series of incidents, each of which could easily have gone otherwise, and he ended the story by saying, “It’s hard to believe, but your mother and I were very close to never meeting each other.” The son asked, “If you hadn’t met mom, then who would be my dad?” The correct answer to that question would be, “You would not exist.” But the idea of never-having-existed, what the philosophers call “nonbeing,” is a dreadful thought that sends existentialists into lifelong despair. What kind of dad would foist that burden onto a child? So, the dad said, “I guess one of your mom’s old boyfriends would have been your dad.” ~\_()_/~ 


Imagining one’s nonbeing is not just a challenge for children. In his book, The Reason of Following, Robert Scharlemann notes the way we ‘hide ourselves’ in everyday talk about death when we say, “Everyone has to die sometime.” That broad language takes on new meaning when we add, “And I, too, have to die.” Suddenly the “I” that is hidden in the word “Everyone” becomes stark and open. Scharlemann goes on to state “I have to die” differently as, “To die is something that I have.” I carry it around with me; I own it; it is part of who I am. And yet, Scharlemann is right to say that this ‘possession’ is what we hide in everyday talk, partly because we don’t want to appear dreadful or morbid. Some Christian folk quickly point to the resurrection and aver that death is nothing real, but I suspect much of that bravado is just a pious form of ignoring the “I” in “Everyone must die.” 


I don’t know if it is healthy or helpful to contemplate our death to a great degree. The “preacher” in Ecclesiastes implies that our inevitable death makes everything else nothing but “vanity.” My own thoughts and faith move in a different direction. Finding the “I” hidden in the phrase, “Everyone must die” can be vastly liberating. Who I am and what I do will always be finite, mortal, temporal, ever “imperfect” in the sense of never-being-completed or perfected. The inescapability of the “I” in “Everyone must die” releases us from grandiose schemes of being eternally young or infinite in our life and accomplishments. Once we let that fantasy go we are open to meeting the Christ of the resurrection, the one for whom death was a reality and yet who lives. If we rush to resurrection too soon, it can be a copout, a way of hiding the “I” in “Everyone.” But, if we find ourselves in the phrase, “Everyone must die,” we reach that moment of finite vulnerability that enables us to embrace as we are embraced by the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” 


Well, those are my ruminations for this morning. And a very pleasant day to all of you. 


Mark of St. Mark

Saturday, August 6, 2022

To Gentle the World



Did you happen to read Yesterday’s Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr? (That’s how I start my mornings. It prepares me for reading the news.) Thursday’s meditation began with this story: 


Once a brother committed a sin in Scetis, and the elders assembled and sent for Abba Moses. He, however, did not want to go. Then the priest sent a message to him, saying: “Come, everybody is waiting for you.” So he finally got up to go. And he took a worn-out basket with holes, filled it with sand, and carried it along. The people who came to meet him said: “What is this?” Then the old man said: “My sins are running out behind me, yet I do not see them. And today I have come to judge the sins of someone else.” When they heard this, they said nothing to the brother and pardoned him.


Then the meditation moved to this profound comment about contemplation by Sister Joan Chittister: “Contemplation breaks us open to ourselves. The fruit of contemplation is self-knowledge, not self-justification. ‘The nearer we draw to God,’ Abba Mateos said, ‘the more we see ourselves as sinners.’ We see ourselves as we really are, and knowing ourselves we cannot condemn the other. We remember with a blush the public sin that made us mortal. We recognize with dismay the private sin that curls within us in fear of exposure. Then the whole world changes when we know ourselves. We gentle it. The fruit of self-knowledge is kindness. Broken ourselves, we bind tenderly the wounds of the other.” 


I find that phrase, "We gentle [the whole world]" to be very arresting and worthy of bouncing around the echo chambers of my heart and mind all day long. While I’m not always a fan of verbing nouns and adjectives (see what I did there?), this one is well done. We gentle the whole world. What can I do, day after day, to make the word “gentle” a verb? And, to gentle “the whole world”? That sounds like a tall order. 


There are folks in this world whom I think deserve a swift kick in the seat. But that’s the justice of someone who is self-righteous, not someone who is self-knowing, whose self-righteousness has melted in the presence of a truly holy God. For those who have stood, naked and open before God, we can only choose paths that are not filled with judgment, spite, or hate. To “gentle” the world seems a very worthy alternative. 


I like this description of contemplation. It is tempting to look at meditation, prayer, mindfulness, and other practices of centering in stillness as simply taking a breather from the madness of the world. What Sister Chittister is describing is different. The breath that we take in contemplation is purposeful, without a prescribed goal other than to be transformed into whatever we are called to be. One thing that makes me grateful for Dr. Gail Sterns, who has led mindfulness meetings here, is that she pushes us to think of mindfulness as more than just something that we are doing in our own heads. It matters that God is present, transforming our space to sacred space. That encounter with a holy and loving God is what allows us to see ourselves in truth – our failures as well as our gifts and beauty. To see ourselves truly, while being loved through it all, is what transforms us from vengeful self-righteousness to people who gentle a world that is often harsh and broken.


Oh, I’ve rambled enough. Sister Chittister’s phrase, “We gentle the world,” has captured me and I am a grateful prisoner to it. 


Mark of St. Mark

Friday, July 29, 2022

This and That

 Friends, it was absolutely delightful to be in worship with you again last weekend. We use the phrase “Presence of the Holy Spirit” to try to describe that strangely wonderful connection that we feel when we are gathered in worship, even with all our differences of opinion and stages in our faith journeys. It’s a connection that is more powerful than any lingering resentments we may harbor, more sustainable than passing misunderstanding, and more comforting than words can convey. For all the criticisms that one can generate against the church in general or a church in particular, that shared heartbeat makes it all worthwhile. I missed that when I was on sabbatical and at home recuperating from COVID. 


Second, I want to speak a bit about our Saturday Evening worship services. As you may recall, we began the “Saturdays @ 5” worship seven years ago, after spending some time exploring and discerning together how we might widen our music and worship repertoire here at St. Mark. After about a year of experimenting with different styles and locations, we settled on a worship experience that was deliberately contemplative and – because of the smaller numbers – intimate. I’ve never cared for the language of “contemporary” and “traditional” or the “worship wars” approach to making worship and musical choices. I’m more inclined to think that each congregation has its own gifts and character that ought to indicate how God is glorified most authentically, rather than relying on popular styles and publishing houses to provide one-size-fits-all worship products. It’s the same reason why I cannot use too many prefabricated worship litanies and prayers that are available for churches. It’s worth the time and effort to write our own liturgy week after week to capture the spirit and power of what God is doing here. And I want to add that I have never tried to siphon off Sunday worshipers to boost the Saturday services. Our Sunday worship experiences is a beautiful thing in its own right, where God uses our gifts and talents marvelously week after week. Our two services are not in competition with one another and never will be.


The “Saturdays @ 5” worship services have evolved nicely and continue to provide a very meaningful worship opportunity for St. Mark members and our surrounding community. Up until 2020, the average attendance was climbing each year. But the shutdown during the pandemic affected worship attendance at both of our services (and everywhere else for that matter) and it has been especially noticeable on Saturdays because of the smaller numbers initially. After the shutdown and prior to my sabbatical, our “Saturdays @ 5” services were rebuilding slowly. We decided not to provide the customary “Saturdays @ 5” services during my sabbatical because it would have required housing our guest speakers overnight, providing meals for the entire weekend, and other added costs. As a result, we are again in a mode of rebuilding the momentum of our Saturday worship. 


I have often felt that our “Saturdays @ 5” worship might be where those who do not have happy memories of worshiping in their past may find a place that’s just different enough and just familiar enough to be meaningful. If you know of someone searching for a meaningful worship experience, but for whom Sunday morning may not be the right solution, I encourage you to bring them to a Saturday service. But, again, if you are a happy worshiper yourself on Sunday mornings, stay there and keep it sacred. It is a gift. 


Third, I want to say that some of you responded very kindly to my invitation to “return to worship” two weeks ago. I was looking forward to starting anew with you after my sabbatical absence. I did not know at the time that I would be down for the count that first weekend, but we are all better now and I look forward to seeing you again. 


This weekend we will be welcoming some new members into our congregation and I will be sharing a very personal message with you, which I think is important for understanding our unique ministry and calling as a church. I look forward to seeing in worship either Saturday or Sunday. 


Mark of St. Mark 

Friday, July 22, 2022

Catching Up

 Last weekend, in an opening video during worship, I mentioned that moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus tells his disciples, “With desire I have desired” to eat this meal with you. I felt the depth of that redundancy all last week, as I was so anxious to be in worship with you again and to participate in all the weekend activities that we had planned. With desire I had desired to be with you again! Alas, a better quote might have been the old Yiddish phrase drawn from the 2ndPsalm, Mann tracht, un Gott lacht, meaning, “Humans plan and God laughs.” With all the tragedy in the world God could use a good laugh, so I’m okay with being the butt of that one. However, I am ready to return this week and be with you physically, not virtually. According to the protocols that we follow for our staff, Tuesday was the end of my 5 day isolation period, which is followed by a 5 day time of extra caution – wearing a mask and keeping social distance. That means I will be in person for Julie Hume’s memorial service on Saturday morning, as well as for worship on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. And, except for those moments when I am actively speaking to the group, I will be wearing my surgical mask and careful about distance. And, once again, thanks all around to our excellent staff and volunteers for stepping up and making all things smooth. Okay, enough about that. Now, for the bitter and the better. 


The Bitter: It is astounding how commonplace mass murder has become in the United States. During my sabbatical there were three such events that particularly caught our attention – A racially motivated shooting that killed ten persons and wounded three more at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY; a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing nineteen students and two teachers, wounding seventeen other people; and a Fourth of July parade shooting in Highland Park, IL, that killed seven people and wounded 46 more either directly or as a result of panicked fleeing. Each of the shooters was a male between the ages of 18-21. 


We don’t know if each of these young men had the same politics, if they played the same video games, listened to the same music, or watched the same violent movies. We don’t know if they have similar religious feelings or any such feelings at all. But something enabled three young men to conclude that, whatever itch or grievance they felt that they had, their course of action was to use weapons to murder children and adults, most of whom - if not all of whom - were strangers to them. There is something about our culture – that’s the catch-all term for speaking about all three of these events collectively – that made the action of ‘callously taking the lives of others’ an option. Ours is not a culture that instills such a deep sense of respect for human life that such an act would go unthought. While we might say it is “unthinkable,” it is not. They thought it, they planned it, and they did it. And the worst part of this cultural misanthropy may be that during that same period we hardly noticed other atrocious acts of violence because the numbers weren’t quite as large. 


During that same time, the Supreme Court made any governmental action toward regulating the sale and possession of such deadly firearms even more difficult with a ruling that seems incredibly myopic. I’m not a “strict constitutionalist” for the same reasons that I’m not a biblical fundamentalist. As such I don’t see where 1st century mores regarding marriage should be binding on 21st century relationships, and I don’t see why late 18th century dispositions toward firearms should be binding on 21st century armaments. These opinions, of course, are my own. I am not speaking on behalf of St. Mark or the Presbyterian Church USA, and these are matters on which persons of faith and good will can disagree. My only purpose in mentioning them as forcefully as I am is to recognize the added layer of anger or frustration that many of us have felt on top of the horror of the mass shootings themselves. 


All of that is to say that, while I was on sabbatical, I was commiserating with you, experiencing the horror and the frustration of things that lie beyond our immediate control. At the same time, we feel some measure of responsibility. So, we pray. And we educate. And we advocate. And we keep going, using the power of persuasion and good will to work toward justice. 


The Better: While we cannot repair the state of our shared culture magically, quickly, or easily, we can provide a better way. One way of doing that is through our youth ministry. This weekend we have four adults and seven youth attending the Youth Conference at the Montreat Presbyterian Conference Center nestled among the Black Mountains of North Carolina. Pastor Hayes will tell you that anyone in the southeastern portion of the Presbyterian Church knows about the beautiful setting of Montreat and the energetic Youth Conferences that they host every summer. If their week goes as we anticipate (see the Yiddish phrase above), we can expect our seven youth and four chaperones to return with energizers and energy, along with a lot of new friends and Instagram followers. While this week should be fun and enjoyable, it is also one way that we cultivate a different way of being in the world, based on compassion, hope, and justice. This week we will lift up our Montreat attendees in prayer as part of our radical hope that our world can be a place of joy and justice. 


See you in worship, 

Mark of St. Mark



Sunday, April 10, 2022

Holy Week and Suffering

Holy Week begins with an ecstatic, “Hosanna!” and it closes with a heartbreaking, “Crucify him!” Along the way, we face fears and challenges. We see Jesus confronting religious leaders for turning God’s “house of prayer for all people” into an emporium for profit-making. We see Jesus rejected by those in power, we see justice miscarried, and we even see friends who betray, deny, and abandon Jesus in his hour of need. We hear what may be the most difficult cry in all of literature, when Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a week that speaks to the most challenging trials that we can face; and so we rightly call it “Holy Week.” 


We cannot get into Jesus’ head, to see how he is able to have such resolve in the face of torture or maintain love through broken friendships. We cannot get into the head of Judas, who once intended to follow Jesus but, in the end, betrayed him. We cannot even get into the head of Simon Peter – as much as his boisterous disclosures try to make his every thought into a bold declaration – when he fails so spectacularly. What we can do is to read the story, see the good and the bad, the hope and the suffering, the ambitions and the failures, to reflect on our own journeys. How does Holy week speak to our fears, our failures, our dashed hopes, and the fragility of our faith? 


And I give you this, to accompany your week. The church calls this week “Holy Week” not despite the suffering but precisely because of the suffering that it contains. Not all suffering is holy, of course. Too much suffering in the world is the result of sinful violence, injustice, avarice, and hate. That kind of suffering – especially the imposition of it and any facile attempt to legitimize it – is damnable and I am in no way romanticizing or idealizing it. 


However, there is a kind of suffering and grief that comes from the vulnerability of loving. As Glennon Doyle writes, “Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved.” Jesus’ grief, so evident in his prayer in the garden and his cry from the cross, was born out of his love. And, likewise, when we lose someone whom we love, when we are betrayed by someone whom we trust, when we are abandoned by someone on whom we rely, we suffer. While their actions may be tragic or inexcusable, our grief itself is a sacred part of our existence. When we suffer because we love, we shed holy tears. It is not a part of our life that we like to think about often, so this week offers us the chance to embrace that vulnerability, to open ourselves to grace, and to know that Christ himself is part of our company in our tears. 


I do hope that you will prioritize attending our Maundy Thursday service at 6:30 at St. Mark; our shared Good Friday service at noon at New Hope in Anaheim; and one of our three Easter services: Saturday at 5:00 PM; Sunday at 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM. 


Mark of St. Mark

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Still Speaking of Hell

 Two weeks ago, I wrote a bit about our understanding of hell, which you can read here. I focused on the word Sheol, which had been translated as “hell” in the King James Version of the Bible, setting a course of misunderstanding. A much better translation is “the grave” or some way of speaking of the place of the dead. Since that time I’ve had numerous conversations with St. Mark folks and others about it. Today I want to explore that topic just a bit further, in two ways. First, I’ll look at another term, Gehenna, that the KJV also translates as hell on occasion, again a misleading translation. Then, I want to propose something about interpreting the Bible’s language about hell, which I will continue to explore as my life goes on. 


Gehenna – according to lexicons and commentaries – is a reference to “the valley of Hinnom.” It appears starkly in these words from the prophet Jeremiah, “Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt-offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; therefore the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter.” 


That’s a mouthful and there’s a lot about it that may have been clear to its original audience, but is lost on us. It does, however, establish the valley of Hinnom, or in this case, the valley of the son of Hinnom, as a wretched, profane, burning place of violence and death. For Jeremiah, this valley is a real place of real tragedy. But, by renaming it “the valley of Slaughter,” Jeremiah is showing a process of how that real place becomes a trope for an accursed site of death and desolation. And that is how this word was used throughout Israel’s history, first dropping the “son of” phrase, then transliterating the term into Aramaic, and finally into Greek as γέεννα, or “Gehenna,” as it appears in the New Testament. The term really gained resonance during what we call the “intertestamental” period, during which a lot of the theology that we find in the New Testament about the afterlife was developed. 


So, by the time we get to the New Testament, the word Gehenna is used without introduction or explanation. Again, we have to conjecture a bit about what it meant to its original audience. Here’s my take – which is just me thinking aloud: Originally, the valley of Hinnom had a reputation as a place of slaughter of innocents, which made it profane and sacrilegious. Over time, that site would be used for burning refuse, including human remains. It would gain real reputation as a dangerous place because of the admixture of putrefaction and burning, the smoke of which would be awful and infectious. And so, long after it originally was used for child sacrifices, it was still a detestable but necessary site, because something had to be done with animal parts, waste products, etc. And, again, the KJV translated this term consistently as “hell,” which is unfortunate, having left a misleading imprint on Christian theology. 


So, that’s my exploration of Gehenna. Now here’s my proposition: I think the ancient way of thinking about sheol was mostly dealing with the perpetual challenge of death. I think other terms, like Gehenna and hades, that have morphed into “hell” in our thinking, were primarily terms that spoke about corruption. Fire was one of the primary agents of purifying in ancient times, by getting rid of what would ultimately decay anyway. Think of what needed to be disposed: Unclaimed bodies of criminals or enemies slain on the battlefield, animal parts, animals that died of disease, and so on. And if you died of a communicable disease, it would make better sense to toss your body into the fire instead of a tomb, so that the disease would be removed. Every lovely, clean city would have to have some place like this valley of Hinnom, hidden away and only visited when necessary. And such a real, necessary place would offer a marvelous metaphor for how to deal with behaviors and habits that would have a destructive, decaying, infectious effect on community. That might explain Jesus’ argument that it would be better to sever an offensive hand or pluck out an offensive eye than for one’s whole body to be cast into Gehenna. We read the KJV and think, “Oh, an offensive eye will make us end up in hell.” I suspect it was something more like, “the offense of the eye will spread and the whole body will be diseased if you don’t remove it. If your whole body is diseased, you won’t be buried with dignity, but thrown into the fires of Gehenna, to purify the earth of the disease.” 


When you and I think about “hell,” we are not thinking about either death or corruption, but about justice. We imagine hell as a way to ensure that those who do evil – and who can live a long and happy enough life on earth doing evil – will be punished in some way. We may not ascribe to a literal, eternal, lake of fire, but heaven as a reward for virtue and hell as a punishment for vice make sense to us from a “divine justice” point of view. And we might be right, but I don’t think that’s what most biblical words that have historically been translated as “hell” are talking about. 


For better or worse, that’s all I’ve got this week,

Mark of St. Mark

Friday, January 28, 2022

Hell [insert your play on words here]

 Let’s talk about hell. It’s hard to imagine a biblical idea that has been more misinterpreted and a theological doctrine that has been more misapplied than the idea of hell. It would take pages to walk through all of the biblical references that have been translated or interpreted as hell, to show how shaky those interpretive judgments are, so I’m going to walk through just one example. A word that is often translated, or at least heard,as a reference to ‘hell’ in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word, sheol. At the root level, sheol refers to the place of the dead. It is sometimes translated as “grave,” and sometimes as “hell.” Think about the difference between “grave” and “hell,” and you can see the influence that a biblical translator’s theology plays on their translations. In Psalm 16:10 there is a phrase attributed to David that the King James Version (1611) translates, “thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” People reading the King James Version come away thinking that back when the psalms were written there was already a fully developed theology of the afterlife that is just like ours. Most other translations do not follow the KJV on this matter. The New Revised Standard Version simply transliterates the word “you did not give me up to Sheol.”


But wait, there’s more! The Apostle Peter quotes Psalm 16:10 in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36). Since the New Testament is written in Greek and not Hebrew, the term sheol has become hades, demonstrating the enormous influence of the Greek Empire by imposing their language and Greek mythology for whom Hades was the god of the underworld. So, when the New Testament refers to an Old Testament text with the Hebrew term sheol, it usually becomes the Greek term hades. That reinforces in some people’s minds that sheol and hades are references to the afterlife. But, if you read wade through Peter’s sermon, he is arguing that hades is simply the place of death, more like we think of the grave than of a netherworld of disembodied souls. Peter’s point is that, since David is in fact dead and buried and his grave is still around, then David was speaking prophetically about his descendant, Jesus, who by virtue of the resurrection is not still in the grave. My point: Peter is clearly using the term hades to refer to a full grave, to contrast it with Jesus’ empty grave. Still, it is translated “hell” in the King James Bible in Acts 2:26. And that unfortunate translation has left a mark on Christian believers. 


Death has always been mystifying and, in some ways, terrifying. So, the idea of death has long been at the center of religious and philosophical inquiry: Is death the final word or is there something more in store? Is death just a bodily thing with some other kind of fate for one’s soul? Since vice often goes unpunished and virtue often goes unrewarded, is there an afterlife where a just God makes that happen? I want to say that, throughout the Scriptures, there’s not just one, static, consistent theology of the afterlife. I don’t think there is even a collective understanding that one can name by simply putting all of the references to hell together. Death seems as mystifying to biblical communities as it does to us. 


These days, hell is popularly conceived today among Christians as a lake of fire, into which people are eternally consigned who have never adequately professed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. It is a doctrine that produces maniacal rants among preachers and nightmares among listeners. But, can a theology rooted in God’s steadfast love really include something like a place of eternal torment? An eternal punishment would outweigh even a heinous crime so much that we would be sacrificing any notion of God’s justice, much less God’s love, by imagining that God will do that. 


So, if you inherited a doctrine of hell that seems to be what the church teaches and seems to be what the Scriptures teach and seems to be what you’re supposed to believe as a good Christian, but which sits uneasily in your spirit as making God’s justice something awful - Then in the name of the living God, creator of life, who sent Jesus Christ as our redeemer, I invite you to let that doctrine go right now. Seriously. I’m convinced that it is more harmful than good, more incorrect biblically than correct, and more anti-Christian than Christian. 


If you are concerned that letting go of that understanding of hell is simply a way that people try to water down the Scriptures to make it more accommodating, then I invite you to consider the translation history of Psalm 16:10 to remember that some translations can be misleading and some topics evolve throughout the Scriptures. 


And finally, if you need some way of thinking about hell, consider this. What if the doctrine of hell is to establish that, ultimately, sin is destroyed, not people or souls. “Sin” is anything that is destructive of life and community - hatred, evil, violence, hubris, pain. What ‘hell’ represents in a theology built on grace is that, in the end, those things will be destroyed, so that God’s reign of life in all of its fullness can be restored. In the end, even the doctrine of hell is part of God’s salvation story. 


That’s me, thinking about things on a Friday morning. Thanks for stopping by.

Mark of St. Mark